With NJ’s Legislature Up for Grabs, You Need a Big Picture to Assess the Action

Chase Brush | May 25, 2017 | Elections 2017
Competitive or contested? Knowing the difference is key to understanding what’s happening on the ground in all 40 districts

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This story is part of a regular series exploring where the candidates stand on major issues and assessing key considerations in this year’s elections. Follow these links to read about how the candidates say they’d ease New Jersey’s fiscal crisis; why the Democrats favor single-payer healthcare; and the reasons the Republicans are cool on the ACA replacement bill.

Legislative primaries in New Jersey rarely drum up the kind of voter turnout that their general election counterparts do, but that isn’t keeping candidates in this season’s most competitive races from gunning hard for the opportunity — even harder, perhaps, than in years past, thanks to a number of unique factors shaping the 2017 cycle.

A total of 278 candidates have thrown their names into the mix for state Senate and Assembly seats this year, resulting in contested primaries in almost half New Jersey’s 40 districts. It’s one of the largest fields the state has seen in a dozen years, with far more contested seats than when the Assembly was alone on the ballot two years ago.

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As of April’s filing deadline, a total of 88 candidates in both parties were running for the Senate, or three more than had filed the last time the upper house sat for election four years ago. The Assembly, meanwhile, saw 190 candidates sign up — the largest num-ber since 2001, when 194 names were on the ballot.

Contested or competitive?

And while “contested” doesn’t always mean competitive — longstanding voter demographics, as well as strong support from county organizations, ensure insurmountable advantages for one or the other party in most districts — several races are generating excitement. Many of these contests are a partial or direct result of vacancies and retirements in the Legislature, where longtime incumbents have moved on to seek roles outside of public life or, in some cases, a higher calling within it.

State Sen. Kevin O’Toole, for example, announced his retirement from the Legislature last year, setting up a fierce battle in north Jersey’s 40th District. And in South Jersey’s 2nd District, one of the only places in the state split between Republicans and Democrats, another retirement by state Senator Jim Whelan has produced contests both for his own seat and for an Assembly one.

This year’s gubernatorial election is also helping shake up the map. Two longtime Democratic lawmakers — Assemblyman John Wisniewski and state Sen. Ray Lesniak in central Jersey’s 19th and 20th Districts — have left the Legislature to compete in that race, opening their seats to potential successors. The same goes for Republican Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, who is exchanging his post in the 16th District to go toe to toe with Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in their party’s primary.

Neither Wisniewski nor Lesniak is expected to beat the Democratic frontrunner, former Goldman Sachs executive and Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy, but their presence has helped invigorate the already high-profile contest. It’s one of only two governor’s races in the country this year, and will determine who succeeds outgoing Republican Gov. Chris Christie in 2018.

GOP disharmony?

The expectation of a Democrat occupying the front office — experts note that Christie’s poor standing among voters, plus their tendency to pick from the ranks of the opposing party after so many years of the other party’s rule, make a Republican victory unlikely — is another motivating factor in contested down-ballot elections this year. That’s particularly true for Republicans, whose complicated relationship both with Christie, their leader at home, and with President Donald Trump, their leader nationally, is causing more disharmony than usual.

Indeed, some of the most competitive primaries this year are taking place in GOP-dominated districts, where conservative newcomers are accusing more moderate incumbents of presiding over a failed Republican agenda in Trenton.

“The Republican Party nationally is split between Trump’s Republicans and other Republicans,” said Matthew Hale, a Seton Hall University professor of political science and public affairs. “And at the state and the local level, there are candidates who are energized at being Trump-like, or thinking they are going to capitalize on the disaffected Republican side of things. So that split that we’re seeing nationally is playing itself out locally.”

“My sense is that most Republicans are resigned to losing the governor’s race, and so there’s no one that can punish a Republican for going outside the party structure,” Hale added.

Such is the case in places like Legislative District 26 and Legislative District 24, both of which feature outsiders self-labeled as “true” conservatives using their opponents’ support of a controversial gas-tax bill last year to turn voters against them.

“The gas tax has become a symbol,” Hale said. “If nothing else in New Jersey, we had cheap gas, and they took that away. And that’s pretty frustrating for a lot of people.”

Intra-party conflict

Republicans aren’t the only ones suffering from intra-party conflict, though. Democrats nationally are still reeling from a presidential election outcome some think might have been avoided had the party nominated Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the progressive standard-bearer, over Hillary Clinton in June.

Those frustrations have trickled into local races — most notably in central Jersey’s LD17, where establishment candidates up and down the board face challenges from members of a group called Central Jersey Progressive Democrats, founded in the wake of Trump’s victory.

Over 60 members of the group have filed as candidates in races across the region, including for seats on the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders and on county committees in places like New Brunswick and Piscataway. They’re also fielding a team for the district’s Senate and Assembly seats.

“We have a tremendous amount of momentum, we’re seeing a great response when we’re out canvasing the neighborhood, and really we think that is an affirmation of what we believe to be the case for the Democratic Party right now, which is that the energy is in its progressive base,” said William Irwin, the candidate for Senate in the 17th District. “That’s what the 2016 election showed us, what Sanders showed us.”

This year’s legislative races are also turning out to be the most expensive in state history: the amount of money raised and spent by candidates across New Jersey totaled $29.4 million and $16.3 million as of May 5, according to an analysis by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. The amount raised was the highest as of 29 days before a primary since at least 2001.

Irwin’s opponent, incumbent Senator Bob Smith, for example, has put together one of the largest war chests of any candidate in a contested primary this year, reporting having raised $669,513 since the beginning of the campaign and spent $220,340. In north Jersey’s 40th District, the scene of another heated battle, Passaic County Clerk Kristin Corrado has raised $172,520 in her bid against Bergen County Republican Chairman Paul DiGaetano, who brought in $24,942 over the same period.

Tune in tomorrow for an in-depth look at some of the state’s most competitive primaries.